Even though the survey was only administered in pet stores and fairs, thereby neglecting some pet food sectors (i.e. e-commerce), and limited to specific population segments (i.e. elder people), it has been possible to highlight the characteristic that were considered as quality indicators by pet owners when they chose their pet food.
In this study, the pet owners were divided into dog owners, cat owners and both dog and cat owners (36.9%; 33.4%; 29.7% respectively) with only a slight prevalence of dog owners. This tendency confirmed by the result of a national report , which reported a higher percentage of dog owners (27.1%) than cat owners (18.3%) in Italian families.
A higher percentage of female owners involved in pet nutrition than to male owners was reported, thereby confirming the trend found in another study . Our data reported a higher incidence of pet store (64.8%) as the preferred shopping channel, but, because of this result, our data can only be considered partial, because our survey was only conducted in pet stores and fairs. In the Assalco-Zoomark report , it was instead reported that the most of the acquired pet food was bought in supermarkets (63.6% considering hypermarkets, supermarket and discount stores) while only about a quarter was bought in pet stores (26.3%).
When assessing quality of pet food, Italian buyers considered the presence of natural ingredients as the most important aspect (average score 4.3/5). This may reflect the current trend that is also observed for human nutrition where there is an increasing demand for a more natural diet . Pet food is becoming more “humanized”, and it follows human food trends. The type of feeding used for pets might reflect the relationship between humans and animals and it could be considered as a symbolic inclusion of the pet in the owner’s family and to reflect the pet owner’s culture or ideology; furthermore, the owners, by using such pet food felt they were taking care of the health of their pets . In a recent study, considering relationship between children and household pets, the family pet was considered as the child’s playmate by 70.7% of the interviewed families .
At the same time the location of the pet food productionfacilities of (4.2/5) was an important factor, as was the information written on the label and its clarity (4.2/5). The correlation analysis also revealed a link between these two aspects.
Another current trend in pet food industries is the development of grain free products. In fact, the interviewees showed some concern about the quality and nutritional value of cereals, their actual utility for pets and the fact they could be a possible origin of allergies . However, according to this preliminary survey, this characteristic does not seem to be a major priority for the Italian interviewees. The average score of this features was one of the lowest (3.3/5) together with the presence of recyclable packaging (3.2/5) and the known brand (3.1/5). A higher price than other similar products (2.5/5) was the least important parameter, according to Italian buyers, considered to evaluate pet food quality. The reason for this could be linked to a decreasing confidence in large famous companies by some of interviewees.
Considering these results, the role of veterinarians in influencing the choice of pet owners about pet food has emerged. In fact, around a quarter of the interviewees (25.5%) asked their veterinarians for advice about their choice of pet food. Veterinarians should not only be able to correctly evaluate pet food quality, they should also have a great deal of knowledge about animal nutrition. This topic should be part of their formation so that they can pass on this knowledge to pet owners. At the same time the pet food industry also play an important role in providing useful information to their buyers. In fact, a third of the interviewees (30.4%) mentioned they trusted the details provided on brand websites. Pet food companies should rely on experts to edit the information on their websites. These results confirmed the findings of a previous study  in which veterinarians were the most frequent source of information about pet nutrition.
In another study conducted in the United States and in Australia, the attitudes of owners toward pet food were investigated and it was shown that a large part of the owners (15.8% of dog owners and 16.9% of cat owners) used the Internet and other media as their primary sources of information. The important role of the veterinarian about the necessity of being prepared about nutritional topics, in order to communicate with and address the issues of owners about the feeding management of their pets, was also highlighted.
“Cruelty free” is another aspect that should be taken into consideration, even though there are still some concerns about its definition. It is a term that is generally used above all for cosmetic ingredients and products that are not tested on animals. The tendency of consumers to search for feeds that are not tested on laboratory animals, which are referred to “cruelty-free” feeds, is spreading in Italy.. This aspect seemed to be perceived as being very important by the Italian interviewees (4.0/5). This could also be important from a marketing point of view, as it is an aspect the media and public opinion focus on. However, this aspect is not yet regulated by any specific legislation. Updating legislation with reference to this topic could be a possible perspective for Italian and European legislation bodies.
Other concerns pertain to the clarity of the label, which resulted to be one of the most important factors for the interviewees (4.2/5). It is not easy to evaluate the quality of a pet food product only from the label and to the best of our knowledge, no studies have been conducted to evaluate the clarity of the labels from a consumer’s point of view; further research is needed in this direction. However, it is a important that the label should not mislead the use, as is clearly stated in Reg. (EC) No. 767/2009 on the placing of feed on the market and their use, as pointed out by FEDIAF (European Pet Food Industry Federation), which developed the Code of Good Labeling Practices . Altough Reg. (EC) No. 767/2009 is focused on placing feeds on the market and their use within the European Community and includes general requirements for labeling, but it does not explore specific aspects, especially for what concerns claims.
A distinction between two large categories of pet owners emerged from the correlation analysis. Interviewees that placed great importance on pet preference also seemed to pay attention to the appearance of the coat and stools, and in general paid more attention to the wellbeing of their pets. On the other hand, the interviewees interested in known brands also seemed to pay attention also to the price and exterior characteristics of the feeds (such as the appearance and the smell), more than to their pets.
This study has also revealed a difference on the perceived quality, depending on the age of the interviewees. For example, elderly interviewees di not tend to consider the presence of recyclable packaging, which was instead important for the younger ones, although this could just be an indication of a major awareness of environmental impacts. Furthermore, the most important aspect for the elderly interviewees was the price, and they paid much less attention to the label information; on the other hand, the younger interviewees were more interested in the information written on the label. An influence of the age of the interviewees was also found for the evaluation of the perceived quality of human food . Older interviewees, with reference to both pet food and food for humans, apparently gave less importance to nutritional aspects than to marketing aspects. Mascarello et al. , for example, found that older people, were more interested in buying certified products and local products. The educational level also seems to have an effect on the perception of pet food quality, and it was also reported, in a study on human food habits, that differences in the educational level of mothers were linked to differences in the eating habits of their children (i.e. consumption of soft drinks, sweets, fruit and vegetables) .
When the species of owned animal was taken into consideration, it seemed that cat owners were more interested in how the pet food appeared externally. This could be linked to the fact that cats are notoriously fussy, and cat owners know that a certain kind of feed can be eaten, or not, by their pet on the basis of its smell and appearance (i.e. texture). Dog owners, instead, focused more on the composition of the feed and in particular on the quantity of protein, perhaps because of the new trend of considering dog like wolves. A healthy stool appearance was also important for them. In fact, dogs, especially large dogs, tend to have stool consistency problems . However, further information on the size of the dog would be necessary to understand whether there is a correlation with attention to stool consistency.